Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interview: Sharing is important on the World's Streets

On a cold gray Paris winter day Ms Lesley Brown, editor of Mobility magazine, came to World Streets to interview the editor about his noisily stated views on the importance of sharing in the future of the transport sector. Her article made it into the pages of Mobility on 20 January, which you can read in the original here or just below.


World Streets, the 'planet's only independent sustainable transport weekly' and its dozen international collaborative peer fora, have been examining and promoting discussion of mobility issues as the New Mobility Agenda since 1988. From news on the streets to decision-making, policies and investment, editor Eric Britton isn't afraid to speak out...

World Street and transport can you explain please?

The overall idea of the collaborative fora -- or as we call them, 'invisible colleges' -- is to foster a broader point of view and more questioning attitude towards the field of transport. If you take a look at the per­sonal architecture of decision groups that dominate and determine the sector of transportation, they are by and large all males. Which means that we have this one dominant group who in fact are designing systems for themselves. And not only are they males, but they are from a certain social economic class, e.g. drivers.

This would be perfectly innocuous were it not for the fact that half the world's population are not male -- plus something like 95% of the seven billion people on this planet cannot afford to buy a car and drive it themselves. So they are in fact designing a system for a minority group.

Probably the only way to con­front this unacceptable anomaly is to create and support a full parity of women in all decision fora; to bring women into the fold in positions of leadership to create a true gen­der balance. Get that right and the rest will follow in good order. Very early in my work I decided to try to create knowledge build­ing groups that include the other half of society to obtain very different results.

What happens in the transport sector, and boy it's not the only one, is that those in charge inevitably move too quickly towards what they presume are the answers, without asking the fundamental questions which set the stage for action. And that's because they are invariably in a great hurry and have a fairly narrow set of interests. Each has a job to do, a boss and a series of set objectives. So any fundamental discussion about what public policy should be tends to be ignored.

What about getting better at governance, i.e. the way in which we organise ourselves to make better, more just and more durable deci­sions? Well we know this: it requires too much wisdom to exist in single person's head. So we have to find out ways to bring together groups of people who can knock their intelli­gence up against each other and through vigorous exchange and co-learning come up with solutions that are better than individual decisions.

What are your views on electric cars?

Electric cars? I love them. I had one in Paris for ten years and it was the best car I ever had for get­ting around in the city. It was small, quiet, cheap and perfectly convenient. You could park it anywhere and to charge the battery I simply bought a counter, plugged it in and paid the owner of my garage for the amount of current used. It was perfect.

My views on electric cars as far as pub­lic policy in the US, Europe, China and India is concerned? I think they are irrelevant, at least when seen in the context of the policy and investment choices that face us with great urgency today..

Technology is not relevant; per­formance is. The goal of government is to ensure products in the automobile industry meet safety, fuel economy and emissions standards set by the commu­nity as a whole. Basically this means taking into account levels of pollution and noise produced by the vehicle from cradle to grave — from production to recycling. Such an analysis of a vehicle and how it relates to the more destruc­tive forms of energy, i.e. fossil fuels, is important.

These are parameters that good governance can set and then say to industry, "fellas do it any way you want to, but just do it because otherwise you won't be able to sell cars in this country or this region." You want me to give you 150 million or 1 billion dollars to devel­op an electric technology to bring to market? Why the **** should I do that? Explain it to me. I'm stupid. Tell me why I should give you hard-earned taxpayer money to develop a particular technolo­gy or product? If the technology is any good put the money in it yourself."

Are you still using your electric car?

No, it got to the end of its cycle. Sadly. Replacing the lead acid batteries would have been pretty expensive for my slim purse. But the two sets I did buy and carefully maintain did serve me for ten years of first class Paris mobility.

Since then I've been cycling more using my own bike and for the last couple of years I have also been a daily customer of Vélib [Paris bike sharing scheme, cost: about nine cents a day]. First of all the Vélib bike is light and del­icate. It also works just fine for the people who use it regularly, like your servant.

But it weighs 22 kg!

Well it's heavy if you want to carry it up to the fifth floor! But when you are cycling the word isn't 'heavy' but 'sta­ble'. It's a beautifully designed bicycle. Think of it this way in personal terms. . Someone may say "your spouse is very nice but a little tall" or "they speaks too softly, I can't hear what they are saying." And you reply, "you know, that may be right but I love this person exactly the way they are."

That's how l feel about Vélib — it's not per­fect. You get the odd bike that doesn't have brakes or they're not good enough. Even if you check in advance, as I do, you sometimes can't get a bike because there are none in the station, or you can't park it because the station is full. But that's life and you have to cope with it. And there are people who can, and others who can't.

And by the way I admire Jean Claude Decaux [French street furniture giant JCDecaux designed, supplies and maintains the bikes in exchange for free billboard space in the city] because he wanted very much to make the system work -- and he did. And it was not easy of costless. Now that is leadership, and you don't have to be a fan of street advertising (which I am not) to admire his contribution. Someone give him a major prize!

But Decaux isn't making a profit? At least not yet

The company JCDecaux has a vocation — street furniture — which they do very well. They are a world leader in the field. It's also a very well run firm with good accountants and terrific lawyers. Now do you think a set up like this is going to put itself into a situation where it will voluntarily lose money on any given venture? It is a true professional that has created a paradigm shift in public bicycles and shaped the way cities worldwide view them today. Decaux was the company that said "this is the way to do it". You saturate a city, then you run it. End of story.

The French city of La Rochelle was one of the bike sharing pioneers back in the 70s

Yes, the Yellow Bike scheme was the brainchild of Michel Crépeau, the brilliant mayor of La Rochelle, who was also one of the first French ministers of the environment. Monsieur Crépeau came up with the scheme that is working to this day and currently being upgraded. But the city bike revolution only got going when the new models, led by Vélib, became apparent.

Are people wired to share?

Sharing is not an option; it is critical for sustainable development. In a world of seven billion people. we have no choice but to get better at sharing. It's a survival strategy. At World Streets we've been exploring the concept and also talking with anthropologists and sociologists and asking questions. As a long-time observer I've concluded that the primal instinct of mankind is sur­vival — first for yourself, then secondly for those close to you, namely your fam­ily and close friends or 'tribe'. And once there is more than one person involved in this survival process, then the shar­ing starts to kick in.

In 2011 we will be seven billion people on this planet. We can't survive without getting better at sharing and have to believe it is part of the normal, healthy business of a person who wants to survive. Although car sharing bike sharing, ride sharing and taxi sharing are all very much in the air, street sharing is probably the best example of the concept. Over the course of the C20, public space in towns and cities, i.e. something between 20 to 30% of the streets, was stolen by cars. And as a result between 1950 and 2000 we lived in an uncomfortable environment dominated by the car. During this long period the best example of 'street sharing' was a pedestrian or cyclist being run over by a speeding car!

To understand street shar­ing, we need to recognise that public space has many different users — from pedestrians, roller blades and cyclists, to people chatting, peddlers, and children playing. So street sharing is based on awareness that this space can be used more effectively. But it all depends on the politics of town and city councils: whether their goal is to channel cars through a city as fast as possible, or perhaps something else.

At the end of the day mobility isn't about infrastructure — it's about people. We have to start with the people. Critical but not as easy as those words may suggest.

And finally let's keep in mind this: more than half the changes required to obtain fairer and better mobility have nothing to do with the transport sector whatsoever. The kinds of skills needed to make wise policy and investment decisions include environmental awareness, public health, community work and gender consciousness. We definitely have our work cut out for us.


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Interview conducted by Lesley Brown,, journalist specializing in all forms of public (and alternative) transport and rail. Editor in chief of Mobility: The European Transport Magazine, This article appeared in Issue 18. 20 January 2011. Mobility, the B2B magazine dedicated to public transport in Europe, is published twice a year,  available on line at and by subscription.  

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  1. Nice words, here in São Paulo we have big difficulties to talk about shared spaces. At the moment some politicians are trying to get some profit for miserable cycle-paths but they are not really interested in bikes, they don't even ask what kind of problem cyclists have. I liked the way things are written here, thanks!

  2. [...] Leslie Brown della rivista Mobility Magazine, ha intervistato Eric Britton, editore di World Streets e ispiratore della New Mobility Agenda, sulle sue ripetutamente dichiarate opinioni sull’importanza della condivisione nel futuro dei trasporti. Quella che segue è una traduzione dell’intervista, che potete trovare in originale qui. [...]


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